How to write Chord Progressions (Guide)Do you want to create chord progressions for your music, that will inspire your listeners instead of feeling simple and boring?

There is so much more to chord progressions than the chords you use. As a music creator, you have unlimited creative power to shape your harmonic story in your music productions by choosing things like: chord inversions, voice leading, playing styles, expressive articulations, instrumentation, arranging and much more.

In fact, even if you choose to use only 3 chords throughout your entire track, you still have infinite creative freedom and choices to make your chord progressions sound unique.

Chord Progressions – Complete Guide

You are now going to learn the most important guidelines for chords progressions in music, so that you will be able to take control over your chords and harmonies that will shape your music stories from the beginning to the end of your music productions.

Chord Progression – Your Harmonic Storyline

What is a chord progression, really? Let’s think about this for a moment, because even though there is a simple answer to this question, the truth is a bit more complex. So the short answer is: A chord progression is a chain of chords, that create a pattern of chord changes.

For example: Let’s say you use the following chords in a track (C Major, F Major, G Major and A minor). Then your chord progression is simply the pattern of these chords you use in your track. And often this sequence of chords will be different for the sections of your song. Let me give you a practical example of chord progressions for an intro, verse and chorus, but only using these 4 chords:

  • Intro: F – C – F – C
  • Verse: C – Am – C – Am – F – C – Am – G
  • Chorus: C – G – F – C – C – Am – F – G – Am – F – Am – G – F – G – C

This is the absolute basics of chord progressions. Meaning that your chord progression is only describing the sequence of chords. Meaning every chord change that defines the pattern of chords.

It does not describe for how long each chord is played before it changes to the next chord. It does not describe the playing style of each chord, the instrumentation and voice arrangement, the chord inversions and voicings, and so on.

So let’s ask ourselves the question again: What is a Chord Progression. The broader answer to this is that it is your complete harmonic storyline in your music composition, and how everything flows and sounds together.

But how can you create and shape your chord progressions to sound unique and inspiring? Well, you will now learn my top guidelines for creating and shaping your chord progressions in your music. So let’s keep learning, right now!

Scale, Key & Diatonic Chords

Now before you start to add chords into your music, you need to know what language your track will use. And that language is based on the scale and key you choose for your song.

For example, let’s say you want to write a track that is emotional and sad sounding. Then you might choose to write it using the natural minor scale. But, you also need to choose which key your track will be based on. For simplicity, let’s use the example of the A minor scale, since that key is only using the white keys on your keyboard.

So now you have the main music language of your track:

  • Scale = Natural Minor Scale
  • Key = A

Which takes us to the chords that are using the language of your music. And those chords are called “diatonic chords”.

Diatonic Chords

The golden rule is to only use chords where all notes of the chord are within the scale and key of your music composition. These chords are called “diatonic chords”, which basically means: Chords within the Key. You can of course go beyond diatonic chords, but that is getting into advanced harmony, so let’s just stick with the main rule.

In this case the language of your music composition will be based on the notes: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Because those are the 7 notes of the A Minor Scale. So all chords within your track will be based on those 7 scale notes if you stick to using only “diatonic chords”.

Next, what diatonic chords can you choose from. Well, let’s start by sticking to the most basic chords of music, which are called “triads”. These are 3-note chords based on stacking intervals of 3rds. Either a minor 3rd or a major 3rd. And since you can stack them in 4 variations, you end up with 4 different triad chords in music:

There are 4 types of basic triad chords in music (3-note chords)

  • Major Triad (R + M3 + m3) = Feel Good Sound
  • Minor Triad (R + m3 + M3) = Emotional Sound
  • Diminished Triad (R + m3 + m3) = Creepy Sound
  • Augmented Triad (R + M3 + M3) = Mysterious Sound

Now let’s check out what diatonic triad chords you can choose from, in the natural minor scale and the major scale, which are by far the two most common scales used in music.

Natural Minor Scale – Diatonic Chords

  1. minor
  2. (diminished)
  3. Major
  4. minor
  5. minor
  6. Major
  7. Major

Major Scale – Diatonic Chords

  1. Major
  2. minor
  3. minor
  4. Major
  5. Major
  6. minor
  7. (diminished)

Since we had chosen to write our music in A minor in this case, you will get these standard triad chords to choose from, for your chord progressions in your track:

  1. A minor
  2. (B diminished)
  3. C Major
  4. D minor
  5. E minor
  6. F Major
  7. G Major

So there you have it! These are the 7 diatonic triad chords you can use to create your chord progressions with, if you write your music in A minor. And since the diminished chord sounds so strange, you will rarely use it for most music styles. That is why I have marked it in parenthesis. Which leaves you with 6 choices, 3 minor chords and 3 major chords.

Let me quickly show you 3 simple examples of chord progressions for a track written in  A minor:

  1. Am – Em – C – G – Dm – Am – F – Em – Am
  2. Am – C – G – Dm – Am – F – Am – G – Am
  3. Em – Am – Dm – G – Am – F – Em – Am

The Importance of I – IV – V

The scale degrees have different names in music theory, based on their harmonic purpose. But there is one scale degree that is way more important than all the others. And that is The Tonic, which is the 1st note of the scale. This is what will create the tonal centre of your music. Think of your chord progressions as music stories, and the tonic chord is what the story gravitates around. The home of your music.

As a general guideline you should therefore use the chord based on the tonic, more often that other chords within your chord progressions. So in this case since you were using the A minor scale for your track, the most important chord, the tonic chord, will be the A minor chord. Because that will be the “home” chord.

But there are in fact 3 scale degrees that have the most harmonic importance regardless of which scale or key you write your music in. These 3 scale degrees are called: The Tonic, The Sub-Dominant and The Dominant. And they are the 1st, 4th and 5th notes of the scale.

If you write your music in a major key, these 3 strong chords will all be major chords. And if you write your music in a natural minor key, these 3 strong chords will all be minor. You can think of the 1, 4 and 5 chords as the main chords of music. If you listen to popular music styles, these three chord degrees will be by far the most used. In fact, there are countless of songs that only use these 3 chords in various flavors all throughout the track.

The 3 Strong Chords of the Major Scale

  1. Major = Tonic (Home)
  2. minor
  3. minor
  4. Major = Sub-Dominant
  5. Major = Dominant
  6. minor
  7. (diminished)

The 3 Strong Chords of The Natural Minor Scale

  1. minor = Tonic (Home)
  2. (diminished)
  3. Major
  4. minor = Sub-Dominant
  5. minor = Dominant
  6. Major
  7. Major

Example of Chord Progressions focusing on the I – IV – V

Example of Chord Progression in C Major. As you can see I have chosen to use the 3 strong chords (I, IV, V) the most, and only added VI-chord (Am) and II-chord (Dm) once each to create some variation.

C – G – F – C – Am – G – C – G – Dm – C – G – C

Another example of focusing on the I – IV – V for a chord progression, but this time in A minor. And as you can see, I only added the F and G once each, while all other chords in the progression are I, IV or V chords of A minor.

Am – Em – F – Dm – G – Am – Em – Dm – Em – Am 

Going Beyond Triads

The standard triad chords, and specifically the major chords and minor chords, are the absolute fundamentals for harmony in music. The two other types of triads: diminished triad and augmented triads are not used as much in popular styles of music due to their extra tension and dissonance.

Let’s have a look at the 4 types of triad chords in music. And remember, a triad means 2 stacks of 3rds on top of each other, which naturally means you have 4 ways of doing that:

  • Major Triad (R + M3 + m3) = Feel Good Sound
  • Minor Triad (R + m3 + M3) = Emotional Sound
  • Diminished Triad (R + m3 + m3) = Creepy Sound
  • Augmented Triad (R + M3 + M3) = Mysterious Sound

Now, what if you want to go beyond triads. There are 100s if not 1000s types of chords you can use in music. But let’s be honest, you don’t need to use them all. I have made it simple for you, by making a summary of the 7 most used chords in music, including the pattern of intervals that make up the chords:

  1. Major Triad = Root + M3 + P5
  2. Minor Triad = Root + m3 + P5
  3. Suspended 4th = Root + P4 + P5
  4. Suspended 2nd = Root + m2 + P5
  5. Dominant 7th = Root + M3 + P5 + m7
  6. Major 7th = Root + M3 + P5 + M7
  7. Minor 7th = Root + m3 + P5 + m7

I would say that by only using these 7 types of chords, you can write pretty much every piece of music you can imagine. In fact, you can even stick to the first 4 of these chord types as your main chords to use for your chord progressions. The great thing about the sus4 and sus2 chords, is that they can add a beautiful emotional light tension in your chord progressions.

But how, and when can you use any of these chords in your music? First, the main rule is to only use diatonic chords. So make sure that the chord type you use only uses notes from within the key of your song.

Another guideline is that you can consider going beyond triads when the added chord voice corresponds to your melodic line. So let’s say you play in A minor, and you want to use a C Maj 7 chord in your progressions. That may be a good choice if your melodic line touches the B note, which is the top voice of that C Maj 7 chord.

Now let’s check out a few examples of chord progressions in the key of A minor, using chords that go beyond the standard triads:

  • Am7 – CM7 – Dm – F – G – Em7 – A sus4 – Am
  • Dm – Em – Am – FM7 – G – E sus4 – Em – C – Em7 – Am
  • Am – FM7 – G7 – CM7 – D sus2 – Dm – E sus4 – Em7 – Am

To make it even easier for you to experiment with chords beyond the standard major and minor triads, I have made two chord charts. One for the major scale, and another for the natural minor scale. And then added each chord type out of these most common ones that is “compatible” with the specific scale degree.

Chord Chart for the Major Scale

  1. Major – M7 – sus2 – sus4
  2. Minor – m7 – sus2 – sus4
  3. Minor – m7 – sus4
  4. Major – M7 – sus2
  5. Major – 7 – sus2 – sus4
  6. minor – m7 – sus2 – sus4
  7. (diminished – m7b5)

So for example, in the key of C Major, as the tonic chord you can use C Major, C Major 7,  C sus2 or C sus4. The next scale degree in C Major is D. And from the chart you can see the 4 main chord types that you can use on that degree, and so on. And in most cases you will skip the 7th degree chords of the major scale for your chord progressions, since it is so dissonant and high tension.

Chord Chart for the Natural Minor Scale

  1. Minor – m7 – sus2 – sus4
  2. (diminished – m7b5)
  3. Major – M7 – sus2 – sus4
  4. minor – m7 – sus2- sus4
  5. minor – m7 – sus4
  6. Major – M7 – sus2
  7. Major – 7 – sus2 – sus4

And again, you can apply this chord chart for any key using a natural minor scale. So for example, if you write your track in A minor, and want to add a chord in the 4th scale degree, you can see from the chart that the compatible chords are: minor triad, minor 7th, suspended 2nd or suspended 4th.